Open letter PR Professionals: Reassess our role on Wikipedia

by David King on Apr 25, 2012

It is with the utmost civility and an assumption that both parties are making a good faith effort to serve the public good that I’m writing this open letter asking the Institute of Public Relations and the PRSA to reconsider their position on the role of public relations professionals on Wikipedia.

Both organizations have advocated against the “bright line,” an informal best practice for PR professionals not to directly edit articles on Wikipedia on behalf of their employer or clients. The concept is a favorite of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

Some perspective

Wikipedia is an autonomous news and information source, not unlike The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. The difference being that it is run by citizen journalists, its content needs are based on a set of rules and it uses different models of communication.

To provide some perspective, lets consider the same scenario, except pretend like Wikipedia is The New York Times:

  • Imagine asking the New York Times to allow PR people to directly edit company profile stories
  • Picture lobbying against the media, because they are not responsive enough to your voicemails (the Talk page)
  • What if you were complaining to the media that it is too difficult to figure out how to meet their content needs?

We have made a science out of determining and fulfilling the content needs of the media, influencers and social media audiences. Why are we asking Wikipedia to make changes to our benefit, when the model has almost always been the other way? Wikipedia isn’t that different from traditional PR. We can write contributed articles, make factual corrections, provide perspective on controversial issues and pitch them to impartial editors.

Unnecessary hostility

For one PRSA event, the following abstract was provided:

“With his grave misunderstanding of our profession, he [Jimbo] has decided that PR people are biased and thus are not allowed to create or edit Wikipedia pages for our organizations or clients – even simple corrections of errors like the misspelling of the CEO’s name. So we are left with a confusing, cumbersome process to do our job when it involves Wikipedia.”

A recent report from the Institute of Public Relations is focused on “the problems with Wikipedia’s editing rule for public relations.”

In advocating against Wikipedia’s rules, we have actually validated their need. Content from both sources verify that it is difficult for us to remain neutral, as neither represent “all majority and minority viewpoints” nor are they written in encyclopedic tone. Additionally, the one-sided media articles secured by the PR industry’s efforts actually show our ability to corrupt the neutrality of trusted sources, merely through well thought-out, but one-sided, arguments. In these media stories, none of the volunteer editors at Wikipedia were given a voice to share the other side. Through the availability of resources, a bias has been created to rationalize a very extreme point of view on a complex subject.

Issues of fact

There has been substantial circulation of factual errors resulting from the inherit bias a frustrated PR industry has on the issues.

For example, the “bright line” is a best practice that merely exists as a concept and essay that many editors support. There is no “rule” to change and no authority at Wikipedia who could ever change it. There is no possible outcome to advocating against the very existence of an idea. This is portrayed as “changing a rule,” but what we’re talking about is eradicating an idea. This is like taking an axe to split vapor. It has been repeatedly stated that PR professionals aren’t allowed to make simple spelling or grammar changes, however the COI Guideline specifically allows direct editing in these circumstances.

These efforts are seen as so aggressive and hostile, there is actually – apparently – a rumor on Wikipedia that PR professionals will show up in mass at the Wikimania conference to astroturf the perspective given on paid editing. Many of these efforts presented in the public sphere is extremely offensive to a volunteer community that pours their free time into a community they cherish, love and believe in with an unparalleled sense of mission.

If these efforts were ever intended to support meaningful change at Wikipedia, it is very likely it will have the opposite effect, creating even more hostility against us by presenting a spotlight example of the reason they don’t want this kind of advocacy to reach Wikipedia.

A better solution

We need to collaborate with the community on their terms, based on their content needs, by communicating in the ways they prefer, just as we always have with the media. After all, it is their turf.

I am just one person. I can’t compete with the PR engine at work. However, if I have instilled any doubt in your mind on your current position. If you’re hesitating right now thinking, maybe we should be humbler, learn more, ask more. Maybe we are the ones that need to change, there are several more productive things we can do.

  1. If the COI guideline is confusing, lets work with the community to improve it.
  2. If not enough PR professionals know the rules, lets educate them.
  3. If there is a weak relationship between the Wikipedia community and PR, lets improve it through our actions.
  4. If the rules are confusing, maybe there is an essay we can improve or create to help.
Image source: Shutterstock.com old letter and ink

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Post Author

David King is the founder of Ethical Wiki, a professional services organization that helps companies improve Wikipedia ethically by offering content, requesting corrections and discussing controversies. Learn more at ethicalwiki.com or read our eBook on Wikipedia & marketing....

  • http://www.swordandthescript.com/ Frank Strong

    The trouble with this post, David, is that it uses a few examples to paint all PR pros as unethical hacks intending to polish entries to the degree they are no longer factual. That’s not the case, and while every profession has it’s 10% of less than stellar performers, its no more fair to use a broad brush to label an entire industry. 

    The NY Times analogy is a poor analogy and yes, PR pros can lobby writers and editors for a correction — if its factually inaccurate. But it’s also written by professionals with training and experience to be impartial.  Wikipedia, written by anyone, cannot make the same claim.  That doesn’t mean it’s not valuable — it is by virtue of the wisdom of crowds.  PR people are part of that crowd, and for any given entry, would be one editor among many all working to make the most accurate portrayal. 

    Besides, who is likely to know more, with greater depth and accuracy about an organization — someone working inside — or outside the organization?  There should be nothing wrong with a self-identified PR pro submitting edits for review with the same requirements for citations as other editors.

    There has to be some middle ground and I’d contend a process for self-identified PR pros submitting edits for review is entirely appropriate with adequate measures to ensure the integrity of the content.

  • David King

    Yup, there are processes for PR pros to submit content for review by impartial editors. That is generally how I do my work.